Tag Archives: CESMA


CESMA field trip to Shrewsbury

This gallery contains 25 photos.

I should apologise for the blip in posts subscribers must just have experienced; I put one post together in the depths of sleep deprivation before I realised that this one should have come first. If it’s any comfort, this one … Continue reading

Seminar CCXXX: digitising a text, one-to-many style

Interrupting my perorations on the state of the Academy with another backlogged seminar report turns out still not to get us very far from computers and the open access agenda. This is because there is at Birmingham a man by the name of Aengus Ward, whom I had clocked as a quantity quite early on in my time there on the grounds that he apparently worked on Spain. He was somehow accidentally elusive, however, and it wasn’t until 24th February 2015 that I finally tracked him down at the Research Seminar of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages, speaking under the title “Digital Editing and the Estoria de Espanna: of XML and crowd-sourcing.”

King Alfonso X of Castile-León, from a manuscript of the Estoria de Espanna

The project’s masthead image is hard to beat, so I’ll just, er, borrow it…. Here is King Alfonso X of Castile-León in all his lion-checkered glory, from a manuscript of the Estoria de Espanna

I will freely admit that I had almost no idea what the Estoria de Espanna was before this seminar: a historical text, obviously, and after my period but still medieval. With the precision of great familiarity, Dr Ward filled in the rest: it is a chronicle that was begun as part of a big courtly learning project by King Alfonso X of Castile (1252-1284), frustrated would-have-been Holy Roman Emperor and canonically known as ‘the Wise’, though not wise enough to avoid being deposed by his son as also happened to fellow scholar-king Alfonso III of Asturias (886-910), a lesson I never get tired of pointing out. It covers the Iberian Peninsula from the supposed time of Hercules to that of Fernando III, Alfonso’s father, and there are forty or more manuscripts of it now surviving, including some translated into the Latin, the original being in Romance. Anyway, the crucial word in all of those may be ‘begun’, because ‘finished’ never really occurred: there was a ‘primitiva’ recension, compiled in 1270, but amended in 1274, then a ‘critica’, revised by Alfonso in prison in 1282, and then his son Sancho IV oversaw an ‘amplificada’ in 1289, with quite a lot of revisions to recent history at each stage. Also, we don’t actually have a full text of the ‘primitiva’. So what in fact do you edit if you are editing the Estoria?

Madrid, Biblioteca de l'Escorial, Y 1 2

One of the manuscripts of the Estoria that the team is using, Madrid, Biblioteca de l’Escorial, Y 1 2. See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

For its first editor hitherto, Ramón Menéndez Pidal, the answer was to produce a synthetic version, emended to whatever he thought was most likely to have been Alfonso’s considered intent – at least so we assume, since his edition apparently makes very little of the actual editing process.1 And, as long as you’re editing on paper, there’s not a lot better you can do, though you could be more explicit about it. But with computers, XML mark-up and a four-year grant from the AHRC, you can hope for rather better. The project is doing (by now, indeed, has done) full transcriptions of five manuscripts, of various versions including one of the translations, and are marking up what’s different, added, removed, spelled differently and so on in an XML system called Textual Communities (hmm… seems familiar…2). In the end (late in what is now this year) it will eventually be possible to enable many-way comparisons between different versions and different versions of versions, setting text next to image with the words linked at an underlying level, comparing images or texts of the different manuscripts, a ‘recension’ view of each manuscript’s text and a synoptic edition, plus a tentative reconstruction of the full ‘primitiva’, all fully searchable and open to the web. Such is the plan.

But what of the crowd-sourcing? Well, that was one of the surprises of the project, in fact. If I have this right, the students who were working on the mark-up had people who wanted also to try their hand at it, out of sheer geeky enthusiasm for old stuff I think (which is what we all trade on, after all), and so worked out at least the logistics of actually allowing version-controlled mark-up editing over the web. Then the project put in for extra money to develop this, got it and suddenly found that they had what turned out to be a dozen or so extra staff to train and manage, all without actually seeing them, which changed some of their jobs quite a lot. I make it sound as if there was no benefit, mainly because as a coin curator I always felt that a volunteer who was available for less than a term was as much of my time lost training as gained not cataloguing, but obviously once the Estoria team were through that hoop this was a valuable extra source of labour and one of the mmajor reasons they’re looking to finish on time, as well as being a valuable demonstration of that elusive quality ‘impact’, not least as one of their transcribers subsequently went back to university to do a Masters in palaeography and diplomatic!3 And as Dr Ward said in questions, they do proof-read each others’ transcriptions already, so there isn’t actually that much extra work once the volunteers know what they’re doing.

Transcription mark-up of a page of one of the manuscripts of Alfonso X's Estoria de Espanna

Oh, and maybe you’re wondering about the spelling ‘Espanna’? Confused by that double ‘n’ where now we would expect an ‘ñ’? Don’t worry, so were the scribes…

In general, while I have no particular stake in this project, it seems like one of the better ones of these jobs I’ve encountered. It seems set to produce its planned result on time, they’ve actually built several extra components into it without prejudicing that, and the ways that they want to present the manuscript and the ways they’ve incorporated outside and amateur interest and built that up into full-blown participation and passing expertise all look like things that you could call best practice. They even have a regularly-updated and interesting project blog! Of course, the real test will be the website, because without that there is nothing except promises, but I came away from this feeling that those promises really did have promise. I look forward to finding out if I was right!

1. Alfonso X el sabio, La crónica general de España que mandó componer el rey Alfonso el Sabio, ed. Ramón Menéndez Pidal (Madrid 1916).

2. Brian Stock, The Implications of Literacy: written language and models of interpretation in the eleventh and twelfth centuries (Princeton 1983).

3. Obviously not in the UK, where as long ago discussed such study has become far too marginal to have an actual degree course for it.


Entrevista a mi en Català

The seminar reports are catching up but reports on my other activity seem still to be mired in busy busy November 2014. At the very end of that month, I had the unusual honour of being interviewed for a Catalan history news website, a sort of recognition I’m very flattered to receive although I wish I could have given them a better photograph. Should you be interested, it’s here:

I should probably post the English, shouldn’t I? But I am writing this on a train to Birmingham to x-ray more coins and time and wi-fi are both scant, so I’ll wait to see if anyone wants it. Meanwhile, speaking of Birmingham, even while posting was sparse here I was still cropping up in other places on the Internet, not least the blog of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages, as follows:

And then lastly, though I will write properly about All That Glitters soon I promise, even as Cross Country Trains carry me towards the next session, here is a snapshot about one of those we already did:

I have never been so twitterfied! Anyway, with that I must get back to what I am doing now, but here at least is some record of what I have been doing that you didn’t have before!

Seminar CCXXIII: hackweights, cut coins and secret knowledge in Viking England

Sing hallelujah, for I have brought my seminar reporting backlog under a year again at last! Witness: the date of the seminar involved in this post is 13th January 2015, when my old colleague and Viking metal expert Jane Kershaw came to Birmingham to tell the Research Seminar of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages about “The Bullion Economy of Viking England”, and I was there.

Part of the Cuerdale Hoard, on display at South Ribble Museum

Part of the classic example of hack metal from the British Isles, the Cuerdale Hoard, on display at South Ribble Museum

The starting premise here is a duality long accepted by scholars of early medieval Scandinavia between monetary economies, where value can be measured, stored and exchanged in coin that is guaranteed to some extent by an outside agency like the state, and a bullion economy in which precious metal (or other metal) is dealt with by weight to perform the same functions. This is a concern of Scandinavianists because Viking Age Scandinavia operated on the latter terms whereas the places it was preying on usually had money, so whereas a ninth-century hoard in, say, the Paris basin would usually be coins, a ninth-century hoard in Sweden is classically many many Samanid dirhams, coins yes but often cut into non-arithmetic fragments, along with bits of jewellery, ingots and other lumps and bits of cut-up metal, or hacksilver as it’s usually called. Even the intact coins in such a hoard will very often bear peck marks from where their metal content was not taken on trust but tested with a knife-point or similar.

Reverse of a penny of King Æthelred II of England showing 'peck' marks in the upper right quarter

Reverse of a penny of King Æthelred II of England showing ‘peck’ marks in the upper right quarter. The coin is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Now of course, sometimes you get ‘Viking’ hoards in ‘victim’ areas, and this is especially the case in the areas of England that were subject to Viking settlement. But these were money-using areas, so what happened when people who worked a different way moved in? This was the subject of Jane’s paper, because while hoards have told us mainly that settlers seem quickly to have adopted coin, to the point of making their own proper-standard stuff in the name of locally-culted saints, the single-finds that are continually being recovered by metal-detector users these days, the bits and pieces that people dropped or lost and which therefore presumably represent the everyday better than an emergency deposit like a hoard, tell a different story, because what they dropped and lost looks much more like the kind of cut-up bullion we expect from a non-monetary situation. In other words, people were doing both.

A cut fragment of a silver Permian ring from a Viking context and now in the Fitzwilliam Museum

A cut fragment of a silver Permian ring from a Viking context and now in the Fitzwilliam Museum; photograph by Jane Kershaw

To an extent, this shouldn’t surprise us, as several people opined in questions. When your smallest available monetary unit is a penny cut in half or quarter, quite a rare thing to find but still in the realm of, say, five or ten pounds sterling as of 2015—total fudge figures because we can buy so much more and get money so much more easily, but an approximation for thinking with—some smaller ways of handling value must have been desirable, for the basic everyday level of exchange that we mostly can’t see but assume was usually done with produce. But Jane gave us two other important things to consider.

Viking silver ingot

A smooth, ‘regular’ ingot with rounded ends and test marks (PAS ‘Find-ID’ SF-144CA2, photo: PAS), says Jane on her blog

Firstly, many of the lumps of metal we find are much bigger than this, including ingots of around 50 grams, with a buying power on the same scale of more like three to five hundred pounds. So the bullion economy could supplement the top end of the monetary one as well as the bottom one, and perhaps better since really tiny pieces of silver and gold such as might make for low denomination currency would be awfully easy to lose!

Viking copper alloy collapsible weights from 1000-1200

Viking copper alloy collapsible weights from 1000-1200. Photograph by Klaus Göken/Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte/Berlin State Museums.

Secondly, operating in a bullion economy requires learned skills that a monetary one displaces: you as trader, on whatever scale, need to be able to weigh, test, evaluate and value all kinds of metal object or fragment to be sure that you are receiving what you think fair and paying no more than you have to. Coin which you can trust gets rid of those problems and leaves you only haggling over a fair price, without needing to work out how to express that, demand it or ensure that you’ve really received it. Small wonder that many graves of people from this period with strong Scandinavian connections include small sets of weights and balances!

An assemblage of Viking metalwork finds from Torksey, Lincolnshire, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

A carefully-sorted assemblage of finds from Torksey, Lincolnshire, in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Obviously they didn’t come in looking as tidy as this!

This all sounds somewhat chaotic, and assemblages like the above, pulled together from twenty-five years of metal detecting over the area of a short-lived Viking fortified harbour, tend to corroborate that impression: how could anyone manage all this stuff? Well, among all the stuff above that seemed clear and sensible and somewhat like someone pointing out the floor under a carpet I had got very used to walking on, Jane also had some hints of a system being used to manage the chaos, by possibly setting weight standards in some metals. The hints here are cubo-octohedral weights, square lumps with the corners cut off, which are found in various sizes from just above a gram to just below four, and are numbered with spots, like dice with only one face. They are found numbered all the way from one to six, and their weights are roughly in proportion to those numbers but so far no example has been found with five spots.

A Viking cuboctohedral weight with four dots on it

A number four weight of the type Jane was discussing, photographed by her and discussed on her blog (click through)

It’s hard not to see a system there, and Allan McKinley bravely suggested that a dirham might be about the right weight to be the five-spot unit, though I checked this later and dirhams seem usually to have been too heavy. But the problem is variation and regulation: the weights aren’t exactly consistent, and how could they be? What reference could there have been except someone else’s weights? That need not preclude an aim to be consistent, but it makes it impossible for us to verify: the error margins of the weights of something so small could very easily exceed a step in the scheme. If a high-weight two-spot one weighs more than someone else’s light three-spot one, we have to ask not only how could this work but how can we be sure they really should be the other way round? I’m not saying Jane’s not right about this, but early medieval metrology is notoriously unverifiable except by constructing models that then guide your sense of what the objects ‘should’ weigh, and given that, I’m not sure what she will have to do to convince me we can really know that one of the models is sustainable…

Jane’s cite for the bullion economy system was Dagfinn Skre (ed.), Means of exchange dealing with silver in the Viking Age, Norske Oldfunn 23 (Århus 2008), and it’s a good one, though I feel that we have to mention Mark Blackburn, Viking Coinage and Currency in the British Isles, British Numismatic Society Special Publication 7 (London 2011) too; for more local examples, see now Jane Kershaw, “Viking-Age Silver in North-West England: hoards and single finds” in Stephen E. Harding, David Griffiths & Elizabeth Royles (edd.), In Search of Vikings: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Scandinavian Heritage of North-West England (Florence KY 2014), pp. 149-164.

Seminar CCXXI: underlings of the harvest

An experience that I have now and again with the number of seminars and conferences to which I go is that I find somebody speaking or present whom I know from reading lists and bibliographies but had no idea was still active in research. This happened to me on 9th December 2014 when the speaker at the Medieval Seminar of Birmingham’s Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages was none other than Jean Birrell. I knew her name primarily because of her rôle as a translator of various important French works on peasantry and agriculture, not least Pierre Bonnassie’s selected papers, and she was able to give me some personal impression of those people in questions afterwards, but her own research (still very much active) is more homegrown, and her title was “‘And he shall stand there all day with a rod’: peasant farmers and their farm-workers in thirteenth-century England”.1

Colchester, Essex County Records Office, D/DBw Q1

A document like some of the sources behind this paper, a slightly more modern manor custumal in the form of Colchester, Essex County Records Office, D/DBw Q1, presenting some unusually direct problems of handling source information!

The quote comes from the custumal of Burton Abbey, a lengthy document seeking to record for definite the obligations of the abbey’s peasant tenants to provide labour on the abbey’s estates. Working with a number of these documents, Dr Birrell was looking at how that kind of labour was managed across the English high Middle Ages.2 It could be split into two categories, week-work, due throughout the year on an days-per-week basis, and boon-work, when something sufficiently big needed doing that all able bodies (and their families in support) were called to muster, for harvests, shearing of sheep or similar, sometimes with free ale and meals laid on if the institution in question was generous enough. All this I sort of knew, very vaguely, but I hadn’t gathered how much this relied on a hierarchy of managers within the peasantry.

Illustration of peasants threshing

Illustration of peasants threshing, again I suspect rather more modern than we’re talking about but there’s no source specified and the technology is basically the same…

On the occasions when everyone was called in, such work (which was fairly unwilling, as all these householders had their own plots to harvest or sheep to shear too) was often watched over by overseers from the lowest levels of the nobility, and that was fairly straightforwardly coercive, but as the title shows the peasants themselves could be relied on to an extent to drive their fellows, or rather their immediate lessers, by force too. A hierarchy in which ‘yardlanders’, tenants with lands and dependants of their own, or ‘sokemen’ in the areas where a different law had once held sway, organised working parties of those with less or no land, even perhaps setting up the food but if not then probably getting more and better of it from those who did, and kept discipline among those parties. A few were even given very minor judicial rights so that they could if necessary hold a ‘field court’ to punish bad workers, and even more detailed orders of precedence were visible in seating arrangements at the meals on the occasions where the custumals specify them (and it shows you something that anyone had thought that needed to be fixed in writing to prevent disputes).

The title heading of the 1275 survey of the manor of Ingatestone, Essex, for Barking Abbey, Colchester, Essex County Records Office, D/DP M150

Something a bit more contemporary, the title heading of the 1275 survey of the manor of Ingatestone, Essex, for Barking Abbey, Colchester, Essex County Records Office, D/DP M150.

A Marxist perspective might see kulaks or similar here, the régime’s stooges co-opted by insignificant crumbs of status that left the lords safely above the hurly-burly of massed labour, and I’m not sure that would be wholly wrong, but the deceptive element of that perspective seems to be missing a point to me. Firstly, the mere existence of these custumals shows that the peasants were under no illusions about who the big boss was; they may well have negotiated with the yardlanders too but the abbey was the guarantor and more-or-less grudging grantor of all their rights, greater and lesser. That seems to me to leave space to appeal against or demand reduction of over-mighty intermediaries. Instead I wonder if the operative concern here wasn’t the democratic concern for the general good that our modern perspectives sometimes assume in such cases and more the early parliamentary thinking whereby one wanted one’s representative to be as influential as possible, so better that he be of high status (and it would be a he, usually though some of Dr Birrell’s boss peasants were in fact women). Look if you like at the different rôles played by Wat Tyler and Sir John Newton in the Peasants’ Revolt as reported by Froissart; Tyler got ignored as soon as he wasn’t a present threat, because of being too uncourtly to be taken seriously, whereas Sir John, while very unwilling to be involved, was still compelled to speak for the rebels, carried out his promise more or less honourably and was heard as a man of honour too.3 Obviously that is Froissart’s report and his perspective was not a peasant one; but this kind of sensitivity to status was, I think, a realistic one rather than one addled by the opiate of small amounts of power. Probably terribly naïve and some Rodney Hilton would doubtless disabuse me but nonetheless these were the thoughts I got from this paper, and I quite like them.

1. The works I knew her name from were, specifically, Pierre Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe, transl. Jean Birrell (Cambridge 1991); Guy Bois, La mutation de l’an mil (Paris 1989), transl. Jean Birrell as The Transformation of the Year 1000: the village of Lournand from Antiquity to feudalism (Manchester 1992); Domninique Barthélemy, “Debate: the feudal revolution. I”, transl. Jean Birrell, in Past and Present no. 152 (Oxford 1996), pp. 196-205; Georges Duby, Dames du XIIe siècle, I : Héloïse, Aliénor, Iseut et quelques autres (Paris 1995), transl. Jean Birrell as Women of the Twelfth Century volume one: Eleanor of Aquitaine and six others (Cambridge 1997); and Jean-Pierre Devroey, “Men and Women in Early Medieval Serfdom: the ninth-century Frankish evidence”, transl. Jean Birrell, in Past and Present no. 166 (Oxford 2000), pp. 3-30; but a quick Regesta Imperii search shows that much more could be added.

2. She had, indeed, at this point just published what must be related work, “Manorial Custumals Reconsidered” in Past and Present no. 224 (Oxford 2014), pp. 3-37, DOI: 10.1093/pastj/gtu007, so if the material here intrigues you that’s where to go to look for more!

3. Working here from the quick and easy resource of Froissart, Chronicles, transl. Geoffrey Brereton (Harmondsworth 1968), pp. 211-230 esp. pp. 214-216 (Sir John’s embassy) and pp. 224-229 (the fate of Tyler).

Seminar CCXVII: medieval Paris graduates in faraway places

The backlog advances but does not yet catch up the year; I now reach 25th November 2014, when I was still in Birmingham. Birmingham’s School of History and Cultures has a considerable number of postgraduate reading groups and seminars, organised by the postgraduates themselves, and occasionally these cross with the staff seminar series. Such was this occasion, when a sudden gap in the schedule of the Seminar of the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages almost coincided with a meeting of the Rosetta Forum and as a result two of the local doctoral students stepped into the breach to deliver short papers about their ongoing work. I sometimes don’t blog postgraduate presentations, but these two are both old hands, one has featured here before and they were after all presenting in a public forum, and anyway why shouldn’t they have the publicity? The lucky recipients of this dubious honour, therefore, are Ryder Patzuk-Russell, presenting with the title, “The Development of Grammatica in Medieval Iceland: the teaching and study of languages and literature in the eleventh through fourteenth centuries”, and Jeffrey Brubaker, speaking to, “Nuncios or Legati: what makes a papal representative in 1234?”. About the only link between the papers other than period was the presence of scholars trained at Paris in both, and somehow both involved in translation. I’m not sure this was intended, but it was a nice coincidence.

Illustration from a manuscript of Icelandic sagas

This image from a manuscript of sagas really has nothing to do with Ryder’s research except country of origin, but it’s obviously too good a picture not to use anyway

Ryder warned us straight away that he had no conclusions yet, but he has set himself up an interesting question: how did people in Iceland, almost the furthest outpost of Latin Christianity from its sources, learn Latin, when they did at all? There are very few manuscripts to go on but what there is either in that form or recorded in booklists suggest that they did so largely in the vernacular; almost everything is translated and there is much more evidence for vernacular literacy, literature, poetry and even theology than there is for Latin, even though much of what they were using must have arrived from, typically, the archbishopric of Nidaros or, yes, the University of Paris, in that language. The translation may have been going on at the cathedral schools which by the early twelfth century existed at Skálholt and Hólar, but that’s very much the opposite way round to most non-Latinate European cultures, which usually acquired literacy in Latin first, and raises questions about why into which Ryder is even now looking.1 Some reasons might be the pre-existence and continuing use of runes, which were even used for Latin as late as the high Middle Ages here, and the obvious necessity of beginning instruction in the vernacular, though that also applied in other places. The two languages interplayed in many more ways than one might expect, it seems, and what Ryder comes up with may have something to tell us about how vernaculars met and interacted with Latin elsewhere too.

Gold hyperperon of John III Doukas Vatatzes struck at Magnesia between 1222 and 1254, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6091

Contemporary Byzantine theology of a fairly basic but important kind: Jesus has Emperor John III Doukas Vatatzes’s back and Mary holds his crown, so watch it. Gold hyperperon of John III Doukas Vatatzes struck at Magnesia between 1222 and 1254, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B6091

Jeff, meanwhile, was dealing again with a particularly messy diplomatic episode in the history of the relations of Byzantium with the West. Religiously divided by a set of issues which had taken until the thirteenth century even to be delimited, the two halves of northern Mediterranean civilisation were forced into interaction at that period because of the ‘success’ of the Fourth Crusade in capturing Constantinople and then their progress failure to hold onto the captured territory in the face of the resurgent Byzantine power at Nicæa. This made a council at that city in 1234 at which union between the two churches was discussed especially heavily loaded, and the fact that union between the churches was not only achieved then but not at any point thereafter either has, Jeff reported, made most historiography teleologically assume that it could not be achieved, that all participants knew this and that the whole affair was therefore only a show, which ended not in union but in mutual condemnation of either side as heretics. It seems a lot of effort for such an outcome, however, and there were obvious upsides to union if it could be pulled off (which is why it was repeatedly contemplated and sought after at many other points in the period, after all).

The Lefke Kapisi gate at Iznik, Byzantine Nicæa

A symbol of Nicene obduracy, the Lefke Kapisi gate at modern-day Iznik. “Lefke Kapisi Iznik 932a” by QuartierLatin1968Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Resolving this question of whether the council was meant to fail might be answered, suggested Jeff, if we could be exact about the status of the Western envoys, a team of English and French friars trained at Paris but also given some brief preparatory research time at Constantinople. Could they in fact negotiate and bind their master, Pope Gregory IX, to their concessions? In other words, did they hold a legatine commission or were they there only as nuntii, glossed by one text as ‘a speaking letter’, only able to report a papal position and not to change it?2 If the latter, obviously, we could assume that the pope wasn’t holding out much hope for the council. Unfortunately, as Jeff showed, the texts (substantially the Greek statement of their position and the friars’ post facto translation of it, about which we’ve heard here before) are not specific; the friars did call themselves simplices nuntii at one point and denied any legatine commission, but on the other hand claimed that their decisions would be ratified; the Greek text, meanwhile, which might have used the word legaton, in fact uses apokrisarios, which is much less specific. Jeff argued that the status of the envoys was in fact genuinely ambiguous, which may have been one of their problems but rapidly became a place into which to retreat as negotiations deteriorated. It would be nice to solve this one, but I have to confess that I can’t see how we can. That is at least something like the position in which the friars (and indeed the Greek clergy also trying) found themselves, I guess!

1. I have this from Vivien Law, “The Study of Grammar” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), Carolingian Culture: emulation and innovation (Cambridge 1994), pp. 88-110, but Ryder cited the big version, Law, Grammar and Grammarians in the Early Middle Ages (London 1997), which I’ve never dared tackle.

2. For details of the distinctions here see (as cited by Jeff) Donald E. Queller, “Thirteenth-Century Diplomatic Envoys: ‘nuncii’ and ‘procuratores'” in Speculum Vol. 35 (Cambridge MA 1960), pp. 196-213, online here, repr. in Queller, Medieval Diplomacy and the Fourth Crusade, Collected Studies 114 (London 1980), II.

Seminar CCXII: scribal dialects explored digitally

Some of the sticky posts are unstuck and the seminar report backlog is back under a year again, this all seems like progress. For lo, we now reach Armistice Day 2014, on which day Birmingham’s Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages had its Seminar addressed by Birmingham’s own Wendy Scase, with the title “The Simeon Manuscript and its Scribes”.

London, British Library Additional MS 22283, here showing the lower part of fo. 142v

End and beginning of two of the texts in the Simeon Manuscript, otherwise known as London, British Library Additional MS 22283, here showing the lower part of fo. 142v

This was the early part of an enquiry that had begun with a different manuscript, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Eng. poet a.1, otherwise known as the Vernon Manuscript, of which you can find details here. This is a huge, 700-page and 22 kilo, compilation of Middle English literature, totalling 370 texts including things familiar from many an English syllabus like The Prik of Conscience, The Ancrene Riwle and Piers Plowman as well as, obviously, quite a lot more, and lavishly decorated to boot. But it is not alone: the Simeon manuscript is, or rather was since apparently many of its illustrations have gone and it’s probably only about fifty per cent present now, another one like it, not quite as lavishly decorated but not far off and sharing one (we thought, till this paper) of the same scribes. (Its details are here.) Both of these manuscripts seem, from what can be said about palæography and provenance as well as about scribal language, to be West Midlands productions and so of what you might call local concern.

Oxford, Bodleian Library, Eng. poet. a.1, fo. 265r

A page of the Vernon Manuscript in the Bodleian’s online exhibition about it, to wit fo. 265r

But scribal dialect was where Professor Scase had got interested, because it raises many kinds of question about copying. If a text is not in local dialect, but the scribe speaks it, does he translate, adapt or ignore the pressures of his own normal language? If it is in local dialect, do they usually translate out of it into something more like a standardised written English? How local is local anyway? Do we have several written Englishes with their own local variation? Do individual scribes change their ways of writing over their careers, and if so towards or away from the local vernacular? And most immediately for Professor Scase, what happens when several scribes collaborate: are they distinguishable by dialect even where they might not be by script?

London, British Library, Additional MS 22283, fo. 130v

The start of another text in the Simeon Manuscript, complete with fancy initials, this time at fo. 130v

The answer to this last, at least, would seem to be yes. It is, I learned, now possible to plot these things to an implausible level of precision using two big databases online, the Linguistic Atlas of Early Mediaeval English and the Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English, which among other things did allow Professor Scase to justify her suspicion that the hand known as Scribe A in this manuscript, which is also present in the Vernon one, was in fact two people, only one of whom wrote with dialectical symptoms, which we can sometimes be sure he was introducing because of being able to identify the exemplar from which he and the other scribe were copying. But his dialect is more pronounced in the Vernon Manuscript, some spellings from which he doesn’t repeat in the Simeon (‘w3uch’ for ‘which’, for example), so what’s going on? Either he had driven this habit out between the two, which their apparent closeness of date makes unlikely, or as Professor Scase suggested, he was aiming not so much for an outside standard of language as consistency within the manuscript. And there will probably—may by now already—be other such details that emerge as the study progresses. I, as long-term readers will probably know, really love these little windows into how someone centuries ago went about a complex task that detailed manuscript work can give you. These two are fairly lovely manuscripts, in terms of pure colour and artifice, but it’s great to be able to see through them to the sweat and thought that went into their making.

Seminar CXCII: fewer soldiers than you think

The seminar report backlog now reaches this year! And, fittingly, or because I am too ready to say yes to things, the first seminar I attended in 2014 was one that I was giving, before the Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages in Birmingham on 20th January with the title Miles or militia: war-service and castle-guard in tenth-century Catalonia”. The seminar was only publicised the same day, so I was lucky to get an audience at all, but there were some and I’d like to thank those who came mainly because it was me, since what I do only really crosses the research interests of two people in Birmingham, neither of whom could attend. Anyway: my basic thesis was that there were not many soldiers in tenth-century Catalonia.

A battle scene from the Biblia de Ripoll

I know I over-use this but it is at least more or less contemporary, a depiction of the armies of Israel from the tenth-century Bíblia de Ripoll. I hope, though, that no-one would try using the number of troops an artist can squeeze onto a full-page drawing as indicative of the actual scale of military service in his area…

If you know the field a bit this may strike you as strange.* In the classic feudal transformation argument this was then an area of quite extensive public military service whose use of force is rapidly privatised in the course of the events of 1020-1050. But before that, in 1010 and 1013, the Catalan army’s raiding Córdoba. To which I say, yes, indeed, there are undeniable references to three ‘public expeditions’—but only three, one of those is the 1010 raid and I discovered the third one a few years ago. Other than that it’s the attempt to defend Barcelona in 985, which of course failed. The few references to military action otherwise—and they are very few—are or could be to very small forces, sometimes extremely few like Oliba’s band of pig-rustlers we mentioned here a few posts back. The only reason you’d suppose, if you came to this evidence for the first time, that there was a lot of military action here is because it’s a frontier and there just must have been, or because it’s a Carolingian polity and we know that the Carolingians demanded large-scale military service and we even have legislation exempting people here from it, which is at least negative evidence, or because you just think that early medieval polities fielded large armies. I don’t want to deny any of those things, but the tenth century was not the high Carolingian era here, and the evidence you would want to prove that such things continued (or, in fact, had ever been demanded) here is very thin, and this in an area that is as we know not short of evidence, even if not really for this.

eleventh-century sword found near Schleswig

It’s surprisingly hard to find an image of an early medeval sword when you want one, and when you do it’s always a Viking one. This is a late eleventh-century one found near Schleswig. For the Museu d’Art Nacional de Catalunya’s Cataluña Carolíngia exhibition of 1999 they had to borrow one from Paderborn. I don’t mean to try and use that fact as part of the argument but nonetheless I think swords were not common here before 1000.

By way of exploring this further, I then acted like the Anglo-Saxonist I was supposed to be in that rôle and went through wills looking for weapons. Who, if anyone, held the sword in early medieval Catalonia? And the answer seemed to be, again, that while the part of evidentiary silence is always hard to assess, very few people can be shown owning swords, and they were all top-rank castellans or churchmen, these often providing their dependents with weaponry in their wills but not usually swords, of which even they had at most two. Lances and hauberks show up a little bit more often, but not much, and still in the hands of people who also bequeathed quite substantial estates. (Though one of the bishops, Guisad II of Urgell, bequeathed a spata ignea and if anyone has any ideas what that might have been, I’d love to hear them…)

Your humble correspondent, standing in the doorway of the Castell de Tona in 2007

Your humble correspondent, standing in the doorway of the Castell de Tona in 2007. I am not a big man, and that is really not a big ‘castle’.

Lastly I looked at fortifications, because this is after all a country probably named after castellans, and there are certainly a few of those. But, especially if you’re looking for the few that remain from the tenth century, they are firstly not very big, and secondly usually extremely far up sharply pointy hills. If you remember my efforts to climb up to Gurb, you may also remember my wondering how its owners could ever have got horses up there. But if they had, there’d have been hardly any room in which to stable them. And with no horses it would take you two hours or so to reach even the nearest settlement, and far longer the nearest road. Gurb was not placed to control a routeway. I think all of these places were probably more watch-towers and refuges than any kind of offensive base. So where does this all lead us? I give you the conclusion:

This would obviously change. Bonnassie’s picture of an eleventh century busy with cabalarii selling horses and weapons is well-evidenced and helps explain how there could emerge from the sack of Barcelona a polity capable of raiding Córdoba in opposition to Castilian troops and the best armies left to al-Andalus. There is very little evidence of the class of mounted knightly warriors who would make this possible before the year 1000, however; neither is there really any evidence of the relict militarised peasantry supposed to precede it, nor even normative reasons to expect one beyond the 840s. In between these two points we seem, as far as the evidence can carry us, to have a much less militarised society. This in turn implies that the rise of violence and feudalised warfare was indeed sudden and thorough, that the transformation was in this respect real. It was perhaps the new possibilities created by the collapse of the caliphate that made this large-scale militarisation possible, and it may be that by equipping to exploit them the counts gave power to a dynamic they could not, eventually, control. But whether this be so or not, it was not a tenth-century development. Frontier or not, tenth-century Catalonia briefly became a military backwater, or so the evidence and its lack suggest. Military service was possibly still general but extremely occasional, and might often have amounted to no more than a few days’ standing guard on a fighting top high above any potential action. The more normally beweaponed whom we can see seem more like thugs and their bosses, dependants rather than honourable servicemen, but even these are few. This is not what we have been taught to expect from this area and time, but what we have been taught to expect seems not in fact to have very much foundation in the actual surviving evidence, inappropriate though that evidence perhaps be for such questions. The conclusions that can be based on the evidence here, therefore, deserve testing against other areas whence the models that fail here were derived.

* Since this is intended for publication, and even now inches towards submission, I won’t give full references here, but rest assured I do have them and some day soon I hope you can enjoy them…

Seminar CXCI: Jews in Western art before, during and after the 1160s

As well as its intermittent seminar series, Birmingham’s Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages also puts on an annual lecture. Once again I am pleased to see that I am reporting on last year’s event before this year’s has occurred, I hope for continuing improvements in this respect, but obviously that only happens if I keep writing so, here is my account of last year’s on 9th December 2013, when Professor Sara Lipton came to speak with the title “Beauty and the Eye of the Beholder: Jewish caricature and Christian devotions in the later twelfth century”.

Twelfth-century depiction of Christ performing miraculous cures

Predictably, the web is much more interested in pictures of Jews as enemy than of anything before that point, but here is a twelfth-century picture of Christ being miraculous, and of course the crowd must, pretty much by definition, include Jews. You’d have to start making some fairly unpleasant arguments about nose shape to guess who, though… The manuscript is in the Morgan Library, New York.

Professor Lipton’s lecture was lively, entertaining and intriguing in equal measure, and of course very well illustrated, since she is an art historian by trade.1 Her key point was that Western medieval art goes through a change in the 1160s in how it showed Jews. Before that time, she said, Jews were rarely identified as such, but as the people among whom Christ lived they get depicted in scenes of His life, with hats and beards denoting them generally as figures of Biblical Antiquity like the prophets. From the 1160s onwards, however, we see (and Professor Lipton showed us) depictions of Jews with twisted features, hook noses, darker skin, pointed hats and so on, and at this time they replace the Romans as those torturing Christ on the Cross. Professor Lipton chose to look more deeply here than sudden prejudice, however, and saw it as a theological development. The Jews are often shown looking away from Christ: they do not see Him in His Passion. In this respect, however, as some theologians of the time indeed argued, they are no more foolish than the Christians who do not really live their faith. The Jews could have chosen to be saved, but did not, and now many supposed Christians commit the same failure of choice every day; it was for these people that such images might have been meant to serve as a warning.2

Jesus being brought before the High Priest Caiaphas, from the Salvin Hours

These kinds of images, however, it is all to easy to find, because these are how everyone knows the Middle Ages (by which we naturally mean 1150 onwards) saw Jews, right? It’s not that these images aren’t there, it’s just the seven hundred years before that get forgotten that irks me. This, anyway, is from the Salvin Hours of c. 1275, probably made in Oxford, now London, British Library Additional MS 48985, fo. 29 recto, and shows a very white Western Jesus being brought before the High Priest Caiaphas.

This is an attractive theory and the way that Professor Lipton married texts and image in it appealed to my sense of coherence; the same thing does seem to be going on in both. I suppose, however, that it is fair to say that with five or six 1160s images and two or three theological treatises we are not necessarily sounding the full breadth of medieval opinion. It occurred to me while Professor Lipton was speaking, for example, that this is at the peak of the period that Bob (“please, not Robert”) Moore has called ‘the formation of a persecuting society’, when many sorts of Other were becoming thoroughly marginalised in terms of hatred and impurity by a now-developed mainstream orthodox Christian society, and whether one accepts that or not, many of these manuscripts came from central Germany, an area where Jews had been slaughtered in their hundreds at the beginning of the First Crusade.3 If these texts and images are not demonising Jews, at the very least the context in which they were being produced means that they are doing something a lot edgier by using such imagery to make a different point than was necessarily exposed here. I asked about the imagery of Saracens at the same sort of time, but apparently the men at least are always distinguished by their headgear and even darker skin for the Saracens (the two groups’ women remaining indistinguishable as before until 1400 or so). So it’s not just a general Othering and Orientalising here, the depiction of the Jews is specific. It might therefore indeed have been being used to make a particular point, but if so it may have been moving against a popular stream.

Depiction of the Crucifixion of Christ from an 1166 copy of Peter Lombard's Commentary on the Psalms

This is the crucial image, but only available on the web really small, alas. Squint! It’s from an 1166 copy of Peter Lombard’s Commentary on the Psalms

While I’m coming up with reasons I mistrust art-historical interpretations… The most illustrative image by far that Professor Lipton used was from an 1166 Bremen manuscript of the Commentary on the Psalms of Peter Lombard, where a depiction of Christ on the Cross is used to illustrate Psalm 68. It has all you could require for her point: Christ is suffering (itself quite new) at the hands of Jewish tormentors with pointy hats and long beards who are otherwise spending their time worshipping a brazen serpent, arrayed on the cross-shaft beneath Jesus. This picture also contains what Professor Lipton believes is Europe’s first depiction of a hook-nosed Jew. One Jew, only, looks at Christ with what seems to be concern. He may perhaps be saved. All of this interprets quite nicely in Professor Lipton’s terms, and I would have no trouble swallowing this were it not for the fact that the whole Cross scene is arranged in front of a huge sinuous fire-breathing wyvern that is bigger than anything else in the picture. I could, if pushed, see this as the Devil-as-serpent exulting in his short-lived triumph over the Son of God, a sign that the Crucifixion was all the Devil’s work (though I’m not sure how orthodox that is given that it was also supposedly required for human Salvation…) but if so, this picture is doing something else that is a lot bigger than just an allegory of blindness! In fact, it’s hard not to see it, in fact, as a demonisation of the Jews as not just blind idolaters, but unwitting servants of Satan. In which case, Professor Lipton’s point about blindness might still work, but I think it needs saying!

There’s a wider methodological point here, I suppose. If this were hagiography, we would by now be more or less OK with raiding stories for incidental but revealing details, regarding those as much safer information than the main point of any given saint’s Life. That’s allowable, however, because in those cases we know what the main purpose of the Life is, viz. to show the holiness displayed by and through the saint and the identification of his or her friends and enemies in contemporary political terms. In doing the same thing with art, however, we run the risk when we look at details as sources for our wider theses that we have not, in fact, necessarily understood the wider thesis of the artist, and in this particular case an explanation of that picture that can’t squeeze in a huge wyvern makes me uncomfortable that we are leaving out something we should be including, as the artist obviously intended.

1. At the time of the lecture, the obvious point of introduction to Professor Lipton’s work was apparently S. Lipton, Images of Intolerance: the Representation of Jews and Judaism in the Bible moralisée (Berkeley 1999), but since then there has apparently emerged eadem, Dark Mirror: the medieval origins of anti-Jewish iconography (New York City 2014), which is where you would presumably now go for more on this lecture’s theme.

2. Professor Lipton here cited her article, “The Sweet Lean of His Head: Writing about Looking at the Crucifix in the High Middle Ages” in Speculum Vol. 80 (Cambridge 2005), pp. 1172-1208, and so so shall I.

3. Robert I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society: power and deviance in western Europe, 950-1250 (Oxford 1987, 2nd edn. Malden 2006); on Jews in the Crusades see the heart-rending contemporary texts translated in S. Eidelberg (transl.), The Jews and the Crusaders: The Hebrew Chronicles of the First and Second Crusades (Madison 1977, repr. Hoboken 1996), and for analysis not least Matthew Gabriele, “Against the enemies of Christ: the role of Count Emicho in the anti-Jewish violence of the First Crusade” in Michael Frassetto (ed.), Christian Attitudes toward the Jews in the Middle Ages: a casebook, Routledge Medieval Casebooks 17 (New York City 2007), pp. 61-82.

Seminar CXC: close-reading a 75-pound Bible

I said a few posts ago that I was teaching at Birmingham last year more or less in imitation of an Anglo-Saxonist, and I meant to link that phrase to the webpage of Dr Peter Darby at Nottingham, because it was in fact very specifically him that I was imitating; he had been on contract to do the teaching I took over before Nottingham made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.1 He has Birmingham academic background, however, so it was a sort of homecoming when he addressed Birmingham’s Centre for the Study of the Middle Ages Seminar on 25th November 2013, with the title, “Heresy, Orthodoxy and the Codex Amiatinus Christ in Majesty”.

Full-size replica of the Codex Amiatinus

What the BBC confusingly calls “the only full-sized replica in the world of a Bible created more than 1,000 years ago”, raising the question of why someone is using gloves to handle a modern replica (not that you necessarily should even with parchment). Nonetheless, this gives you the size of the volume, and if you imagine those pages being skin, not paper, also the weight…

The Codex Amiatinus is the 75-pound Bible of the title, famously one of a set of three made at Bede’s monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow for presentation, in this case to the papacy, the source as Bede saw it of England’s Christianity.2 It was done in Roman-style uncial script, in columns, by at least eight different scribes; it is probably reasonable to see it as the baby Church demonstrating to Papa that it’s all grown-up now. It was taken to Rome, probably by the following of Abbot Ceolfrið, who died on the way there, and by the ninth century was in the monastery of San Salvatore al Monte Amiata, whence it gets its name; in 1786 it was moved to Florence, [Edit (see comments): atby which point someone had for reasons best known to themselves altered the dedication page so that it claimed (and claims) to be a gift from one Peter of the Lombards]. There is a lot of decoration in the book, including the famous portrait of Ezra that has been reused so many times by people looking for images of medieval scribes. Peter pointed out that most of this decoration is in the first quire of the book now, and wondered if it might have been rearranged, but some pictures remain later on, and his paper was essentially a close-reading of the one below in search of communications of orthodoxy.

Christ in Majesty, from the Codex Amiatinus

Christ in Majesty in the Codex Amiatinus, ink and dyes on sheepskin parchment. “Amiatinus Maiestas Domini” by Unknown – Internet. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

This rather splendid example of medieval book-painting occupies the folio between the Old and New Testaments, thus opening the New, but Peter argued that it also closes it, by invoking in its depiction of Christ in Majesty the throne in Heaven described in the Book of Revelation: against a background of stars, jasper and ruby, a rainbow encircling, four living creatures around it that represent the Evangelists… I was happy to accept that (and indeed to drag the image straight into my teaching materials next term) but Peter also found a lot of fours in this image, numerical and geometrical, including pointing out that if you draw diagonal lines between the Evangelists’ books they intersect at Christ’s book and that even the stars in the background are arranged in quincunxes, crosses of four points around a fifth. The trouble for me here is that there are four Gospels, that’s a given starting place, and I’m not sure that this kind of structuring has to mean any more than a recognition of that as an organising principle for a necessarily four-sided artwork. Peter also argued that the portrayal of Christ as human was very current and correct, because the Church had just (as of 692) agreed that the Lamb of God should no longer be used to depict Jesus, but the Christ in Majesty usually is human, isn’t he, and that might to be honest just be because lambs look silly standing on furniture.


What I certainly took from this was that the artwork was meticulously planned and laid out, and that once again it as with many another Insular Gospel Book stands as very obvious evidence against anyone who wants to argue that medieval artists weren’t very good. This was difficult and deliberate work, especially with the tools, inks and dyes available, and no effort was being spared to make a top-of-the-range codex. Peter’s case that it was sending an up-to-the-minute communication of theological orthodoxy to the papacy, however, rather than just advertising that its artists and home monastery were world-class… well, I’m still open to it, but this paper did not close it for me.

1. Given that this could be taken as a critical review, I should admit in full disclosure that I was also interviewed for the Nottingham job. I hope that that doesn’t affect my thinking here but I suppose you ought to know it could technically be a factor.

2. If there is a one-stop academic read on these matters it is for now Paul Meyvaert, “Bede, Cassiodorus, and the Codex Amiatinus” in Speculum Vol. 71 (Cambridge 1996), pp. 827-883, DOI: 10.2307/2865722. A bigger picture (literally) can be got from George Henderson, From Durrow to Kells: the Insular Gospel-books 650-800 (London 1987).